Despite the ruined First Church of Christ, Scientist, the grass is greener where the Oasis used to be.
After a long rainy season, the desolation imbued by the vacant lot across from St. James Park in downtown San Jose is now more exuberant. I see fields of green, as the song goes. The long-abandoned yet historically landmarked church still sits underneath several tarps, since the real estate syndicate that now owns the property refuses to complete the renovation. It looks like a Christo sculpture gone painfully awry.
The Oasis was a dance club that doubled as a janky live music venue in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It used to sit on this very patch of land, where the grass now grows. Many gigs unfolded here, including Devo, Negativland, Harry Dean Stanton and an orgiastic 1990 show by Psychic TV, which I fondly recall.
As I revisit the neighborhood on a dark chilly evening, I sneak through the open gate and shuffle across asphalt cracked by the decades. Then I make it to the grass, formerly the Oasis, where I cannot get Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds out of my head—perhaps a perfect predicament for the nighttime atmospherics.
I was not present when Cave played at the Oasis in February 1989. However, a gorgeous black-and-white tour documentary from 1990, “The Road to God Knows Where,” included a few hysterical scenes with Cave inside the Oasis, in San Jose, yelling at the club manager and sound crew because the PA system wasn’t satisfactory. No one at the club had actually read the contract, so they weren’t aware that Cave wanted a much larger system. In one scene, during the daytime ahead of the show, the club manager says to Cave, groveling: “But a system like this works for A Flock of Seagulls and Devo…” after which Cave, wearing a baseball cap, screams an expletive at him and then storms out the front door onto St. James Street.
The show did go on, as attendees will testify, but in the film, the Oasis staff came across as a bunch of incompetent small-timey buffoons in some backwater suburb, especially the manager, who had never even heard of Nick Cave. It was not a good look for San Jose.
For proper context to understand the significance of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds showing up in downtown San Jose, one must consider 1989 for a few moments. Most of the neighborhood was still a boarded-up skid-row wasteland. An already useless light rail system had just started running, the construction of which killed off what little retail was left. There was no hockey team, as the arena was not yet built. Winos, junkies and unhoused people populated the street. Tuition at SJSU was about $600 a semester. One could rent a six-room Victorian house for about $1,000. For most of San Jose outside of downtown, “culture” meant going to the lawn chair sale at Home Depot.
For a transnational outré troublemaker like Nick Cave in all his goth crooning glory to come steamrolling through town was a pretty big deal, even if it was just the measly Oasis. Cave, now 65, plays 3,000-capacity venues all over the world, with albums, films, books and all sorts of creative endeavors to his credit. I wonder if he remembers the Oasis. He would be delighted to know a suburban real estate mogul in a cowboy hat leveled the building 20 years ago, but that a crumbling church in all its ruined glory still perseveres next door. Cave is a very spiritual dude, of course. His lyrics have merged beauty and sadness for 40 years.
So, as I now stand on the grass and focus my gaze eastward to the tattered tarps flapping in the wind, I am demanding San Jose not build anything around the church. Make it a destination just as it is. In fact, Cave should come back and do a gig in the parking lot. Instead of Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii, it would be Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Live at the San Jose First Church of Christ, Scientist. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If Italy and Greece can turn their ruins into tourist traps, why can’t San Jose?
Awesome article, Gary!